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Review: Design makes the difference for pocket-PC gadgets

Computerworld

(IDG) -- Some of my friends think I have the neatest job, in that I get paid to play with so many of the newest gadgets and gizmos, often before they're on the market. One unexpected side effect is that I am forever getting object lessons in the difference between good design and bad.

Take, for example, three items I've been using recently. All are potentially great products. One has a good, though not standout, design, but some elements compromise its general usefulness. Another, full of promise, is nearly unusable for many in its current incarnation. And the third is a genius-class design that manages to be clever, attractive, reliable and functional all at once.

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The good but compromised product is the $499 Cassiopeia EM-500 Pocket PC from Casio Inc. in Dover, N.J. It's not as sleek a package as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada 545 [see "PDAs at 30 paces," link below] or Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq Pocket PC, but it has the best and brightest color screen I've yet seen on a personal digital assistant (PDA).

Incidentally, while setting up the Casio, I found that it has great connectivity. It synchronizes much more reliably with my PC via the included Universal Serial Bus cable than does the HP Jornada. And you can link it to a Code Division Multiple Access cell phone and to Casio's own $105 PC-Unite data wristwatch.

Clearly intended as a consumer product, the EM-500 is available in five colors: yellow, blue, green, red and sky blue.

Another indicator of its consumer orientation is storage. While installing the Pharos Global Positioning System (GPS) unit reviewed below, I needed to copy a 10MB file to the Cassiopeia, but its 16MB of RAM didn't offer enough free space. So I grabbed a compact flash memory card I've been using with other PDAs and digital cameras - but it didn't fit.

This is the first pocket PC that's designed to use a newer, smaller type of flash memory card called a MultiMediaCard. A telephone call to Sunnyvale-Calif.-based Sandisk Corp., co-developer of the new medium, got me a sample card I could use.

There's also a business version of the Cassiopeia called the E-125, available only in silver, and it takes any Type II compact flash card, including IBM's new 1GB Microdrive. For an extra $50, you also get 32MB of RAM, as well as a desktop cradle for synchronizing; the EM-500 includes only a cable.

The E-125 is clearly the one I'd pick if I were buying a Casio PDA for my own use. However, while the Cassiopeia is a very nice unit, I still prefer the Jornada for everyday use.

Where in the World?

I've been trying out a new GPS package for PDAs, the iGPS-180 from Torrance, Calif.-based Pharos Inc. This $209 package includes a GPS sensor with cable (mine was Casio-specific) and features a map display and the ability to read driving directions out loud.

I installed the GPS and mapping software with no problems. Then I tried to download a Boston-area map into the Cassiopeia and learned about the MultiMediaCard I mentioned above. Once I had the card, the Boston map downloaded easily, and I was eager to try out the GPS in the car.

My first suggestion: Don't attempt to drive and operate this GPS combo at the same time. The sensor is permanently attached to a cable that plugs into the Cassiopeia and then forks to a power plug for the car's lighter socket. But when you put the sensor on the dashboard at the base of the windshield as instructed, the Cassiopeia is left dangling upside down. You can't put the unit on the passenger seat or even on the console; the cord needs to be at least 18-in. longer to be manageable.

So I had to pick up the Cassiopeia with my right hand to see it better, and each time I did, no matter how careful I was, I managed to inadvertently press one of the Casio's dedicated application buttons. Each time, the map was replaced by some other application.

Who did the usability testing on this thing? Oh, it's fine for the passenger, but the Casio/Pharos combination is next to useless for a solo driver. And if you can't use it when you're by yourself, then do you really need the voice directions?

Key Accessory

I recently received Targus Inc.'s Stowaway keyboard for the Jornada. Once, in a review of Palm accessories [see "Palms aweigh!," link below], I pooh-poohed the usefulness of a dedicated keyboard for a PDA - after all, you can always use your PC and sync to the handheld, right? Well, the Stowaway has changed my mind. Because it folds up into a package that's barely larger than a PDA itself, it's easy to take along in any carrying bag. And when you open it up, you have a good-quality, full-size keyboard with decent touch, and it holds the Jornada in front of you at a nicely readable angle.

The designers also built in a power connector so you can recharge the unit while it's on the keyboard.

Folded, the Stowaway is compact and latches together. It's deceptively heavy, but you can still carry it in a shirt or jacket pocket.




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RELATED SITES:
Casio, Inc.
SanDisk Corp.
Pharos
Hewlett Packard Co.

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